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May 5, 1964 | Nebraska's last F-5 tornado

The most violent of violent tornadoes in Nebraska
Posted at 2:47 PM, May 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-15 15:47:22-04

Tornadoes are rare. Of the 100,000 thunderstorms that occur in the US every year, less than 1,000 produce tornadoes.

Of the roughly 1,200 tornadoes in the US each year, less than 1% of those reach F-5 (EF-5 post-2007) intensity. Since 1950, when tornado records began, 59 tornadoes have been classified as F-5 or EF-5. After 2000, only 9 tornadoes have been rated F-5 or EF-5.

Despite being in tornado alley and frequent tornadoes, Nebraska has not had many F-5 tornadoes in its history. This is mostly due to Nebraska being rural, where violent tornadoes miss towns. The last F-5 tornado to hit Nebraska was in 1964 on May 5, when an F-5 tornado traveled from east of Hastings to west of David City. In this installment of This Week in Weather History, we look at the last F-5 tornado to impact Nebraska.

It was a classic severe weather set-up for eastern Nebraska. A large low-pressure area was moving across South Dakota, dragging a cold front across central Nebraska. Ahead of this cold front was abundant warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. Behind the cold front was cooler air from Canada, which would clash with the warmer air to bring explosive thunderstorms. The low pressure also had ample wind shear, which would allow for the storms to rotate. The recipe was there for an outbreak of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

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The weather map at 1 pm on May 5, 1964.

Thunderstorms began developing close to the Tri-Cities by the afternoon and moved northeast. 1964 was devoid of many meteorological devices we use today, such as satellites or radar (they both existed in 1964, but in primitive forms). Therefore, we do not know how many storms formed that day. We know of at least three because these three storms would produce many tornadoes along their path. Many of these tornadoes are what we call "tornado families" where they lift and come back down several times along its path. So it looks more like a dashed line than a solid line.

The weakest tornado family began north of Grand Island near the town of Dannebrog. This tornado intermittently touched down over farm fields of central Nebraska, but missed towns such as Fullerton. It did impact St. Edward, northwest of Columbus. In St. Edward, damage was done to numerous buildings and homes, but no one was injured. The tornado lifted in Madison County southwest of Norfolk, although the town experienced hail upward of 2".

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Damage to a Union Depot building in St. Edward from the tornado on May 5, 1964.

About 15 miles to the north of this tornado track, a much stronger tornado began southwest of Wolbach. The tornado took direct aim on the town of 382 residents, slashing through the heart of the business district. About 70% of Wolbach was damaged in the tornado, but the strongest part of the twister missed the town to the northeast. Despite the heavy damage, no one was killed in Wolbach. The tornado continued to the northeast into Boone and Madison Counties, passing between the towns of Meadow Grove and Tilden, both west of Norfolk. The tornado soon lifted in Pierce County.

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United Press International. Wolbach, Neb: This trailer home was flipped on its top & banged into side of building 5/5 as a string of tornadoes whipped through central Nebraska. This farm community suffered heavy damage to property and injuries to at least 12 persons. At least two persons have been killed by storm.. [ca. May 1964]. Web. 14 May 2024. <https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/sb39bc133>.

As those two tornadoes were ongoing to the north, the most violent tornado in recent Nebraska history began just east of Hastings. Residents watched as the funnel descended to the east of town, and began a path of destruction that would take it over 70 miles through multiple counties of eastern Nebraska.

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Path of the three tornadoes/tornado families in central and eastern Nebraska from the tornado outbreak of May 5, 1964.

Almost from the moment it began, the tornado began razing farm homes east of Hastings. Moving into Clay County, several homes suffered significant damage west of Harvard. It intensified in Hamilton County, where the tornado moved south of Aurora. Almost every home that was hit in southern and eastern Hamilton County was either significantly damaged or destroyed, some left with just their foundations. Most people saw the tornado coming and took shelter. Although there were a few injuries, no one was killed in Hamilton County.

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Damage in eastern Hamilton County from an F-5 tornado on May 5, 1964.

By the Hamilton/York County line, the tornado reached its maximum intensity between Hampton and Bradshaw. This is where two fatalities from the tornado occurred. 61-year-old Mrs. Theodore Reed and her father 84-year-old Classen Turner were making dinner when the tornado surprised them. The entire home was destroyed, leaving only a bare foundation. The daughter of Mrs. Reed was an editor at the Aurora News-Register and arrived on the scene to find her mother and grandfather dead. They would be the only two confirmed fatalities in the tornado, although there are several reports of two more succumbing to their injuries in the weeks following the tornado.

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Homes damaged in western York County from the F-5 tornado in Nebraska on May 5, 1964.
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Damage in York County from the tornado.

The tornado continued into York County, passing near Benedict north of York itself where it continued to flatten more homes. Along US-81 north of York, Nebraska freshmen basketball coach Bob Gates was driving to a banquet in Polk when he encountered the tornado, he gave this interview to The York Daily News-Times:

I knew it was a bad storm, but I didn't have any idea what I was heading into. There were black and white clouds close to the ground and it started raining so hard that I just couldn't see. Just north of Benedict, I came upon fencing and barb wire scattered all over the road and just beyond that I saw a bunch of cattle wandering over the highway. Someone came running out to my car and asked me to help some people who were injured. When we got to where the house must have been, there was nothing standing. There were some people there beginning to pull this family out of what must have been their basement.
Bob Gates, York Daily News-Times
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Trees were debarked and snapped in western York County.

The tornado then crossed into Polk County south of Stromsburg. It was the same story as farther south. Destroyed homes, upended livelihoods, and numerous snapped trees and fences. Because the tornado was visible, many residents near Stromsburg took shelter, and only a few minor injuries were reported.

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Damage to a home southeast of Stromsburg. The couple living in the home saw the tornado and went for the basement, sparing their lives.

The tornado intensified once more as it moved just east of Shelby, missing the town by several miles to the east. Farmsteads were wiped off the map, with many left to their foundations like the ones in the counties prior. The tornado then entered Butler County west of Rising City where it continued to do more damage. It finally lifted east of Bellwood, but not before destroying one last home in the vicinity of the community.

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Home destroyed near Shelby.
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A aeriel survey company based in Louisville, Kentucky flew over parts of the tornado track and documented the path. This was taken near the Hwy 81/NE 92 junction on the Polk/Butler County line. The thin line is the track of the tornado, where it damaged a home on the west side of the image.

Over its 70-mile path, it laid utter destruction in the area. Dozens of homes were not only damaged but wiped clean. It is sometimes said that F-5 tornadoes "destroy the home, and clean up afterward". F-5 tornadoes can pack winds of over 260 mph. As of May 5, 2024, this is the most recent F-5 tornado to impact Nebraska. One can only hope that the streak continues.